Common beef cattle enterprises

The diverse climate, property sizes and market options in the Hunter region suits a range of possible beef cattle operations (production systems) with varying feed requirements and profit potential. Differing property sizes (and pasture types) may be required to sustain a functional cattle unit due to the varying annual feed requirements of each production option. Different beef enterprises also require differing levels of management; personal factors (such as interest in more intensive management of pastures or herds) also need to be considered.

The follow sections briefly describe the key features distinguishing  three of the most widely adopted beef cattle enterprises in the Hunter region.

Weaner production system

Producing weaner cattle is a common, basic beef enterprise in the region. Cows are joined annually (usually between October – January) with calves born in the following spring. This means that the peak feed demand of 18 DSE per breeding unit (cow and calf) coincides with maximum production from native pastures in the Hunter region during early summer. The calves are sold just after weaning at the start of winter when feed supplies become limited. Feed requirements over winter typically average only 8.8 DSE per breeding unit (breeding cow and replacement heifers). About 20% of the calves are typically retained on farm to provide future replacement breeders.

Calving success and growth rates are limited by the available feed quality and herd management. Calves of around 8 – 9 months of age typically average only 160 – 200 kg and are suitable for sale for further fattening on other more productive properties. They are eventually sold for slaughter at around 15 – 18mths of age when they reach a finished live weight of around 300 – 400 kg.

Vealer production system

This follows a similar production cycle as for weaners, with cows joined annually in early summer and calves born the following spring. However, sites that are slightly more productive are required to allow calves to fatten better post weaning. Better performing calves with a live weight of 260kg -360kg at around 8 – 10 months can be sold for slaughter as “vealers”. Lighter calves in the mix are sold as store cattle, usually to inland areas for rapid finishing with supplementary feed, or are grown out for subsequently sale as yearlings (see below).

Higher levels of soil phosphorus and better pastures also support higher pregnancy and survival rates. Peak feed requirements are higher than for weaners, but calves are again sold prior to winter when feed reserves on unimproved or partly improved properties are limited. About 20% of the calves are typically retained on farm to provide future replacement breeders.

In the Hunter region the average feed requirements of such an enterprise is 15.3 DSE per breeding unit.

Yearling production system

Yearly production systems raise calves (usually steers) until 13 – 15 months of age. ‘Yearling’ cattle reaching a live weight of 360 – 460kg are sold for slaughter into the domestic market. Alternatively, in poor seasons the yearling cattle can be sold at 340-380kg liveweight to domestic feedlots as store steers for a further 60-100 days feeding.

Weaned calves may be bought-in as store cattle during autumn / winter. When bred on site a peak feed demand of over 20 DSE per breeding unit occurs in spring when the yearlings are being finished and a cow, the current calf and last years follower all need to be fed. Improved pastures, winter forage crops or supplementary grain feeding are needed to provide high quality feed over an extended growth period. Hence, this system requires additional pasture and herd management and suits properties that are more productive.

In Hunter region the average feed requirements of such an enterprise is 18.6 DSE per breeding unit.